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April 11, 2024

New EPA PFAS ruling: MSU experts provide overview of changes

Municipal water systems must remove “forever chemicals” from their tap water under a new rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency meant to prevent deaths and serious illnesses linked to the substances.

This limit is the first of its kind for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, a toxic chemical used in everyday items from nonstick cookware to firefighting foams. The Biden Administration said in a statement that the move will reduce PFAS exposure to about 100 million people.

MSU researchers are leading efforts in Michigan to mitigate and educate about the dangers of PFAS. In 2020, MSU launched its Center for PFAS Research, where more than 30 scientists from nine MSU colleges take a multi-faceted approach to the issue. Over the last four years, they’ve measured and monitored PFAS; researched health impacts on fish, wildlife and humans; and explored ways to minimize exposure. They’re also researching remediation methods and developing safe alternatives.

Here’s what MSU experts have to say about the EPA’s new rule.


Cheryl Murphy, director of the MSU Center for PFAS Research, and professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and College of Agriculture and Natural Science

“The new PFAS regulations suggest that PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and a few other chemicals should not be detected in drinking water because the limits are set at detection limits. This regulation suggests that measurable levels are unsafe for human consumption. Having federal regulations will ensure widespread testing, and the designation of a hazardous substance should free up resources to deal with remediation efforts. While these rules apply to drinking water, eventually the attention will focus on contamination in our lakes and rivers and should lead to a reduction in levels that impact our fish and wildlife resources.”


A. Daniel Jones, associate director of the Center for PFAS Research, and professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology, College of Natural Science

“This action by U.S. EPA represents a big step forward by establishing a national standard for regulating levels of some PFAS chemicals in public drinking water systems, but other sources of PFAS exposures, including foods and consumer products, are not yet addressed. My hope is that this will raise public awareness that will drive us to better address the risks and challenges presented by persistent environmental contaminants, steer us toward development of safer alternatives, and provide impetus to developing effective strategies for remediating contaminated sites and materials.”


Muhammad Rabnawaz, associate professor, School of Packaging, College of Agriculture and Natural Science, and member of the Center for PFAS Research

“To comply with new EPA ruling, we will need safe alternatives for PFAS in all sectors including packaging. PFAS compounds, which serve various functions, cannot be replaced by a single substance, necessitating the exploration of multiple alternatives, such as biodegradable polymers and siloxane-coated papers.


Science and health:

Amber L. Pearson, associate professor, Charles Stewart Mott Department of Public Health in the MSU College of Human Medicine

“This recent ruling on these forever chemicals is an important first step to address water safety for communities impacted by PFAS. Importantly, ensuring drinking water is free from PFAS means disease prevention, including cancer. This is a win for public health in the United States.”


Courtney Carignan, assistant professor, in the departments of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Agriculture and Natural Science, and a member of the Center for PFAS Research

“The federal maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, will help assure equitable access to safe drinking water for over 100 million Americans affected by PFAS contamination. Reducing PFAS in drinking water will protect health and save lives. The six PFAS regulated by the MCL are persistent, mobile, and toxic meaning that even relatively small amounts in drinking water accumulate in the body over time. They effect multiple systems of the body and have been linked with high cholesterol, decreased immune response, changes in thyroid hormone, developmental effects, and have been linked with certain cancers including kidney, testicular and breast cancer.

“Studies generally show increased risk with increasing levels of PFAS. Federal regulation means that for the first time all communities in the U.S. should have support and guidance to identify and reduce PFAS in public drinking water supplies. As there are thousands of PFAS, and many currently in use that are also harmful, the MCLs are a historic first step but should not be the last. People can help protect themselves by testing their drinking water and opting for PFAS-free products. “


Hui Li, professor in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences, College of Agriculture and Natural Science, and member of the Center for PFAS Research

“The EPA has finalized the maximum contaminant level for six commonly used PFAS chemicals. This immediate action will reduce human exposure to PFAS in drinking water and mitigate the associated risks to human health. However, there are thousands of other PFAS chemicals widely present in the environment, and consumption of PFAS-contaminated food represents another key exposure pathway to humans and animals. These issues will urge additional research efforts and regulations for disposal of PFAS in the environment and remediation of PFAS-contaminated sites across the nation.”


Maria Lapinski, professor of communication in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and director of the MSU Health and Risk Communication Center

“Given the proliferation of chemicals in our environment like PFAS, the industry that produces them and governments that regulate them have a responsibility to communicate the risks and benefits of these substances in an effective manner. Communication about risks should be done in a way that is shaped by the needs and preferences of the audience and include real information about the probability and seriousness of harm and things people can do to reduce that risk. The World Health Organization and other entities provide best practices for risk communication to guide people in this process.”


Brad L. Upham, associate professor, Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, College of Human Medicine, and leads the Research Translation Core.

“The EPA’s new ruling establishing a national standard for regulating levels on a select set of PFAS is a welcomed and overdue effort in reducing exposure to these toxic ‘forever’ chemicals. This ruling will offer communities guidance in their efforts to reduce human exposures and further the needed public’s awareness of the health risks posed by PFAS exposures. This ruling will hopefully motivate the public to fund research on developing technologies and strategies to remove, reduce, and prevent human exposures, and funding for biomedical research to address and hopefully reverse the toxic effects of PFAS.”


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